The Northern Cape Travel Guide
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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
The vast Northern Cape, the largest and most dispersed of South Africa’s provinces, is not an easy region to tackle as a visitor. From the lonely Atlantic coast to Kimberley, the provincial capital on its eastern border with the Free State, it covers over one-third of the nation’s landmass, an area dominated by heat, aridity, empty spaces and huge travelling distances. The miracles of the desert are the main attraction – improbable swaths of flowers, diamonds dug from the dirt and wild animals roaming the dunes.
The most significant of these surprises is the Orange (or Oranje) River, flowing from the Lesotho Highlands to the Atlantic where it marks South Africa’s border with Namibia. The river separates theKalahari and the Great Karoo – the two sparsely populated semi-desert ecosystems that fill the interior of the Northern Cape. On its banks, the isolated northern centre of Upington is the main town in the Kalahari region, the gateway to the magnificent Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the smaller Augrabies Falls National Park.
In Namaqualand, on the western side of the province, the brief winter rains produce one of nature’s truly glorious transformations when in August and September the land is carpeted by a magnificent display of wild flowers. A similar display of blossoming succulents can be seen at the little-visited Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, a mountain desert tucked around a loop in the Orange River either side of the Namibian border.
Despite these impressive natural attractions, most of the traffic to the Northern Cape is in its southeastern corner, through which the two main roads between Johannesburg and Cape Town, the N1 and the N12, pass. A less obvious way to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town involves taking the N14 through Upington, passing the atmospheric old mission station at Kuruman, then driving on to Springbok and following the scenic N7 down the coast. This route is around 400km longer than the N1 or N12 but, while the N14 has more than its fair share of long, empty landscapes, the sights along the way are more interesting.
Getting around by public transport can be a pain. While the main towns of Kimberley, Springbok and Upington lie on Intercape’s bus routes (with connections to Windhoek in Namibia), many services arrive and depart at night and thus miss the scenery. Minibus taxis cover most destinations several times a day during the week, but are much reduced or nonexistent at weekends. Taxis don’t serve the national parks (take an organized tour instead).
The history of the Northern Cape area is intimately linked to the San, South Africa’s first people, whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle and remarkable adaptations to desert life exert a powerful fascination. Although no genuine vestiges of the San way of life can be found in South Africa (only tiny pockets remain in the Namibian and Botswanan sections of the Kalahari desert), their heritage is most visible in the countless examples of rock art across the province, and, to a lesser extent, in their ancient legends and place names. The movement of Africans from the north and east, and Europeans from the southwest, drove the San from their hunting grounds and eventually led to their extinction; yet for both sets of newcomers, the semi-desert of the Karoo and the Kalahari at first appeared to offer little more than hopelessness and heartbreaking horizons.
What it did provide – wealth under the dusty ground – the Europeans pursued without restraint, beginning in 1685, soon after the Dutch first established their settlement in the Cape, with an expedition into Namaqualand to mine for copper led by Governor Simon van der Stel. The other Europeans who made an early impression on the province were trekboers, Dutch burghers freed from the employment of the Dutch East India Company in the Cape who wanted to find new lands to farm away from the authoritarian company rule, and missionaries, who established a framework of settlement and communication used by all who came after.
Within a few years of the discovery of diamonds in the area, a settlement of unprecedented size had grown up around Kimberley. The town soon boasted more trappings of civilization than most of the southern hemisphere, with public libraries, electric streetlights and tramways, as well as South Africa’s first urban “location” for Africans and coloureds. The British authorities in the Cape were quick to annexe the new diamond fields – a move which didn’t endear them to either the Orange Free State or the mainly coloured Griqua people, who both claimed this ill-defined region. It was no surprise, therefore, that at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, rich and strategic Kimberley was one of the first towns besieged by the Boer armies. Many reminders of the war can still be seen in the area.
Diamonds originate as carbon particles in the Earth’s mantle, which are subjected to such high pressure and temperature that they crystallize to form diamonds. Millions of years ago the molten rock, or magma, in the mantle burst through weak points in the Earth’s crust as volcanoes, and it is in the pipe of cooled magma – called kimberlite, after Kimberley – that diamonds are found. Finding kimberlite, however, isn’t necessarily a licence to print money – in every one hundred tonnes there will be about twenty carats (4g) of diamonds.
The word “carat” derives from the carob bean – dried beans were used as a measure of weight. (Carat has a different meaning in the context of gold, where it is a measure of purity.) De Beers estimates that fifty million pieces of diamond jewellery are bought each year – which represents a lot of marriage proposals.
NAMAQUALAND is another Northern Cape region whose name conjures up images of both desolation and magic. According to an oft-quoted saying about the area, in Namaqualand you weep twice: once when you first arrive and once when you have to leave. This is the land of Khoikhoi herders called the Nama: the Little Nama, who lived south of the Orange River, and the Great Nama, who lived north of the river in what is now Namibia. Sparsely populated, the region stretches south from the Orange to the empty Knersvlakte plains around Vanrhynsdorp, and from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the Great Karoo. Above all, Namaqualand is synonymous with the incredible annual display of brightly coloured wild flowers that carpet the landscape in August and September, one of South Africa’s most compelling spectacles. Even outside flower season, swathes of orange, purple and white daisies emerge, and there is a tenacious beauty about this dry, empty landscape of mountain deserts, mineral-bearing granite hills and drought-defiant succulents.
The N7 highway between Namibia and Cape Town cuts across Namaqualand, offering one of the most scenic drives in the country. At its northern end, at the junction with the dusty N14 from Upington and the Kalahari, lies the region’s capital, Springbok. This is the best base for flowers – the nearby Namaqua National Park provides reliable displays even in years of low rainfall, when displays elsewhere may be muted – and for visiting the Province’s remote northwestern corner: the Diamond Coast, stretching from Port Nolloth to the Namibian border. The harsh but spectacular Richtersveld Transfrontier Park stretches inland, bisected by the Orange River – rafting on which ranks high among the region’s attractions.
The seeds of the spectacular flowers of Namaqualand – daisies, aloes, gladioli and lilies – lie dormant under the soil through the droughts of summer, waiting for the rain that sometimes takes years to materialize. About four thousand floral species are found in the area, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Although it’s difficult to predict where the best displays will occur, for more or less guaranteed flowers you can head for the Skilpad section of Namaqua National Park or to the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, with its ocean-mist-fed succulents.
One indication of where the displays will occur is winter rainfall; flowers follow the rain, so early in the season they will be out near the coast, moving steadily inland. Temperature is also a factor, meaning that on cool or cloudy days displays are muted.
North from St Helena Bay, the hook of land 100km north of Cape Town, the long, lonely west coast of South Africa has two simple components: the cold, grey Atlantic Ocean, and the dominant sandveld vegetation, hardy but infertile. There isn’t much more to the region: between the mouth of the Olifants River near Vanrhynsdorp, and the Orange River over 400km to the north, there is just one sealed road connecting the N7 highway to the coast. It leads to the only settlement of significance, Port Nolloth.
Namaqualand’s first diamonds were discovered in 1925, confirming that diamonds could be carried the length of the Orange, washed out into the ocean and then dispersed by currents and the processes of longshore drift. Although initial prospecting was carried out along the course of the Orange and in the coastal dunes, the diamonds lying offshore on the sea bed are now more eagerly chased, mostly by boats operating with huge underwater “vacuum cleaners” and divers working in often dangerous conditions. Whereas much of Namaqualand’s coast remains off-limits thanks to the presence of diamonds, the “Diamond Coast” from Port Nolloth to Alexander Bay, the mouth of the Orange River, is visitable. Springbok serves as a good access point.
During flower season, the rains fall first on the coastal areas, and you can often see displays beginning about 20km inland, making the few roads down to the coast from the N7 worthwhile detours. The dirt R355 road through the Spektakel Pass between Springbok and Kleinzee is one of the most spectacular drives in Namaqualand, and the Anenous Pass on the tarred R382 between Steinkopf and Port Nolloth is also impressive. Along this road you’ll also see wandering herds of goats belonging to the pastoral Nama people living in the area, as well as the peaks and valleys of the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, the mountain desert occupying the area immediately south of the Orange River. The area surrounding the park is home to several developing community tourism initiatives, providing an excellent introduction to the life of the Nama.
The AI-AIS RICHTERSVELD TRANSFRONTIER PARK in northwestern Namaqualand – commonly known as the Richtersveld – covers an area roughly bounded by the Orange River to the north, the N7 to the east, the R382 to Port Nolloth to the south and the Atlantic Ocean on its western side. Here, the starkly beautiful park was formed in 2003 by the merger of South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park (by which name the new park is still known in South Africa) and Namibia’s Ai-Ais Hot Springs Game Park. Tucked along either side of a loop in the Orange, the landscape is fierce and rugged; names such as Hellskloof, Skeleton Gorge, Devil’s Tooth and Gorgon’s Head indicate the austerity of the inhospitable brown mountainscape, tempered only by a broad range of hardy succulents, mighty rock formations, the magnificence of the light cast at dawn and dusk, and the glittering canopy of stars at night. Annual rainfall in parts of the park is under 50mm, making this the only true desert – and mountain desert at that – in South Africa. In summer the daytime heat can be unbearable – temperatures over 50°C have been recorded – while on winter nights temperatures drop below freezing.
The best time to visit is August and September, when the area’s succulents – representing almost one-third of South Africa’s species – burst into flower. There’s little fauna in the park other than lizards and klipspringers, although leopards are present, if characteristically shy.
Between April and September it’s possible to take guided hikes along designated trails and into the park with the help of the community tourism project at Kuboes (027 831 2013), although note that these trails are liable to closure if there are not enough qualified guides.
Along the Orange River you’ll find surprisingly rich birdlife, which is best enjoyed by taking a canoeing trip down the river – a gentle and relaxing jaunt rather than high-energy white-water rafting (by the time it reaches northern Namaqualand, the river is broad and the few rapids innocuous). Trips range from half-day tasters to full-on six-day expeditions, with camps set up by the riverbank en route; costs start at around R400 for a full day, or R800 overnight.
Top image © Jan Erasmus/Shutterstock
Although it’s a provincial capital and the historic centre of production of one of the world’s most valuable materials, KIMBERLEY itself is neither large nor glamorous. During the diamond rush, it was the fastest-growing city in the southern hemisphere and Cecil Rhodes held in his grip not only the fabulously wealthy diamond industry, but the heart and mind of the British Empire; yet status and sophistication have been draining from Kimberley ever since. Even the all-controlling De Beers Group (sometimes called the “grandfather” of Kimberley for the number of people it has directly and indirectly employed) closed its Kimberley mines in 2005 as part of a process to streamline the company, and the city lives in the chilly shadow of the day when the diamonds dry up altogether.
However, Kimberley’s legacy gives it an historic flavour few other cities in South Africa can match. It’s worth spending a few hours seeking out some of the many old buildings, not forgetting to peer into the depths of the Big Hole just west of the centre, the remarkable, hand-dug chasm that takes up almost as much land area as the city’s central business district (CBD).
The fact that the Big Hole is underground doesn’t make orientation immediately easy; a useful landmark is the stern-looking skyscraper, Harry Oppenheimer House (often referred to as HOH), near the tourist office. Many of Kimberley’s other main sights lie on or near Du Toitspan Road, which slices diagonally across the city centre and becomes one of the main arteries out of town to the southeast. The central business district (CBD) sits at Du Toitspan Road’s northern end, to the south of Lennox Road.
Although the 500-metre-wide Big Hole, just west of the city centre, is neither the only nor even the biggest hole in Kimberley, it remains the city’s principal attraction. In 1871, with diamonds known to be in the area (see A short history of the Diamond Fields), a group of workers known as the Red Cap Party were scratching around at the base of Colesberg koppie, a small hill on the De Beers brothers’ farm. The story goes that they sent one of their cooks to the top of the hill as a punishment for being drunk, telling him not to return until he’d found a diamond. The unnamed servant duly came back with a peace offering, and within two years there were over fifty thousand people in the area frantically turning Colesberg koppie inside out. In its heyday, tens of thousands of miners swarmed over the mine to work their ten-square-metre claim, and a network of ropes and pipes crisscrossed the surface; each day saw lives lost and fortunes either discovered or squandered. Once the mining could go no further from the surface, a shaft was dug to allow further excavations beneath it to a depth of over 800m. Incredibly, the hole was dug to a depth of 240m entirely by pick and shovel, and remains one of the largest manmade excavations in the world. By 1914, when De Beers closed the mine, some 22.6 million tonnes of earth had been removed, yielding over 13.6 million carats (2722kg) of diamonds.
The only official way to see the Big Hole is from inside the Kimberley Mine Museum, which you can reach either on foot or via a delightfully rickety, open-sided tram that runs from the City Hall. The museum gives a comprehensive insight into Kimberley’s main claim to fame. The Big Hole itself is viewed from a suspended platform, from which you can peer down into nothingness. An informative film puts it all into context, as do other displays, from a re-creation of a nineteenth-century mineshaft to a vault full of real diamonds.
The area now known as the Diamond Fields was once unpromising farmland, marked by occasional koppies inhabited by pioneer farmers and the Griquas, an independent people of mixed race. In 1866 this changed forever, when a 15-year-old boy noticed a shiny white pebble on the banks of the Orange River near Hopetown, about 120km southwest of Kimberley. Just as word of that discovery was spreading, another Hopetown resident, Schalk van Niekerk, acquired from a Griqua shepherd a massive 83.5-carat diamond. These two stones became known, respectively, as "Eureka" and "The Star of South Africa"; the latter was described at the time – with some justification – by the British Colonial Secretary as the "rock on which the future success of South Africa will be built". Certainly in the short term, the discoveries provoked wild optimism: thousands of prospectors made the gruelling trek across the Karoo to sift through the alluvial deposits along the banks of the Orange and Vaal rivers, and by 1873 there were an estimated fifty thousand people living in the area.
Although plenty of diamonds were found in the rivers, prospectors also began scratching around in the dry land between them, encouraged by tales of diamonds found in farmhouse bricks made from local earth. Two of the most promising "dry diggings" were on a farm owned by two brothers, Johannes Nicolas and Diederick Arnoldus de Beer. In 1871 the brothers sold the farm, which they had bought a few years previously for £50, to prospectors for the sum of £6300. The two sites subsequently became the Kimberley Mine, or Big Hole, and the De Beers Mine, situated on either side of the centre of Kimberley. The Big Hole was the focus of the most frenetic mining activity of the early years, and the shantytown that grew up around it, New Rush, was the origin of the present city.
Kimberley in those days was a heady, rugged place to live, with little authority or structure, but with prizes rich enough to attract bold men with big ideas. Of these, two very different, if equally ambitious, men rose to prominence in the new settlement. Barney Barnato, a flamboyant Cockney, established his power base at the Kimberley Mine, while Cecil Rhodes, a parson’s son who had come out to join his brother in South Africa to improve his health, gradually took control of the De Beers Mine. The power struggle between the two men was intense, culminating in the formation in 1888 of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, an agreement involving the transfer from Rhodes to Barnato of over £5 million, an astronomical sum in those days. This consolidation laid the foundation for De Beers’ monopoly of the diamond industry in South Africa.
When Cecil Rhodes first arrived in the Kimberley Diamond Fields he was a sickly 18-year-old, sent out to join his brother for the sake of his health. Soon making money buying up claims, he returned to Britain to attend Oxford University, where his illnesses returned and he was given six months to live. He came back out to South Africa, where he was able to improve both his health and his business standing, allowing him to return to Oxford and graduate in 1881. By that point he had already founded the De Beers Mining Company and been elected an MP in the Cape Parliament.
Within a decade, Rhodes controlled ninety percent of the world’s diamond production and was champing at the bit to expand his mining interests north into Africa, with the British Empire in tow. With much cajoling, bullying, brinkmanship and obfuscation in his dealings with imperial governments and African chiefs alike, Rhodes brought the regions north of the Limpopo under the control of his British South African Company (BSAC). This territory – now Zimbabwe and Zambia – became known as Rhodesia in 1895, the same year as a Rhodes-backed invasion of the Transvaal Republic, the Jameson Raid, failed humiliatingly. Rhodes was forced to resign as prime minister of the Cape Colony, a post he had assumed in 1890 at the age of 37, while the Boers and the British slid towards war. He spent the first part of the war in besieged Kimberley, trying to organize the defences and bickering publicly with the British commander. A year after the end of the war, Rhodes died at Muizenberg near Cape Town, aged only 49 and unmarried; he was buried in the Matopos Hills near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.
A couple of interesting places lie on or near the R31, which runs northwest out of Kimberley in the direction of Kuruman: there is some fascinating San rock art at Wildebeest Kuil, while the area around Barkly West was where some of the first diamond camps sprang up in the 1860s. South of Kimberley along the N12, the mostly unremarkable landscape around Magersfontein was the setting for one of the most dramatic campaigns of the Anglo-Boer War.
At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, the Boer forces identified diamond-rich Kimberley as an important strategic base and quickly besieged the city, trapping its residents, including Cecil Rhodes, inside. In response, the British deployed an army under Lord Methuen to relieve the city. The size of the army and lack of knowledge of the terrain compelled them to advance from the coast along the line of the railway so that a supply of troops, water, food and equipment could be ensured.
Methuen first encountered Boer forces at Belmont; this was followed by further battles at Graspan and the Modder River, from which the Boers made a tactical withdrawal to Magersfontein, a range of hills 30km south of Kimberley. Here the Boer generals, under the leadership of General Cronjé and the tactical direction of Koos de la Rey, decided to dig a line of trenches along the bottom of the koppie rather than defend the top of the ridge of hills, as was their usual tactic.
In the early hours of December 11, 1899, the British advanced on Magersfontein, fully expecting the enemy to be lined along the ridge. The British were led by the Highland Regiment, fresh from campaigns in North Africa and India, and considered the elite of the British army. Just before dawn, as they fanned out into attack formation, four thousand Boers in the trenches just a few hundred metres away opened fire. The use of trenches was, at that point, a rare tactic in modern warfare, and the element of surprise caused devastation in the ranks. Those not killed or wounded in the first volleys were pinned down by snipers for the rest of the day, unable to move in the coverless veld and suffering appallingly under the hot sun. The next day the British withdrew to the Modder River, and the relief of Kimberley was delayed for two months. The defeat was one in a series of three the British suffered within what became known as "Black Week", news of which sent shock waves through the British public who had been expecting their forces to overrun the "crude farmers" before Christmas.
The semi-arid expanse of northern Namaqualand is where the Karoo merges into the Kalahari, and both meet the ocean. If it weren’t for the discovery of copper in the 1600s, and more recently of alluvial and offshore diamonds washed down from the Kimberley area by the Orange River, the region might well not have acquired any towns at all. Fresh water is scarce, and its presence here ensured the survival of SPRINGBOK, the region’s capital, after its copper mines were exhausted.
Attractively hemmed in by hills, Springbok is the main commercial and administrative centre of Namaqualand, and an important staging post at the junction of the N7 and N14 highways. Lying 400km southwest of Upington, and just over 100km south of the border with Namibia, it makes a pleasant base for visiting northern Namaqualand’s flower fields in August and September or a springboard for visiting the coast, and it’s a good place to arrange trips to the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
Springbok’s main action is centred on the mound of granite boulders next to the taxi rank in the town centre. Called Klipkoppie ("rocky hill"), this was the site of a British fort blown up by General Jan Smuts’ commando during the Anglo-Boer War. A few hundred metres up from Klipkoppie, at the back of town, a gash in the hillside marks the Blue Mine, the first commercial copper mine in South Africa, sunk in 1852. Recent activity here has been in search of gemstones – previously ignored in the frantic hunt for copper ore – and zinc. A short trail winds up to a good viewpoint over town. You’ll find a good selection of gemstones for sale at Springbok Lodge, together with an excellent display of mineralogical specimens from all over the globe.
While the Northern Cape has no shortage of dry, endless expanses, the most emotive by far is the Kalahari. The very name holds a resonance of sun-bleached, faraway spaces and the unknown vastness of the African interior, both harsh and magical. The name derives from the word kgalagadi (saltpans, or thirsty land), and describes the semi-desert stretching north from the Orange River to the Okavango delta in northern Botswana, west into Namibia and east until the bushveld begins to dominate in the catchment areas of the Vaal and Limpopo rivers.
The Kalahari in the Northern Cape is characterized by surprisingly high, thinly vegetated red or orange sand dunes, scored with dry river beds and large, shimmering saltpans. Although this is, strictly speaking, semi-desert, daytime temperatures are searingly hot in summer and nights are numbingly cold in winter. North of the Orange, South Africa’s largest river, the land is populated by tough, hard-working farmers and communities largely descended from the indigenous San hunter-gatherers and nomadic Khoi herders. For many land-users, there is an increasing realization that eco-tourism may be the only viable option on huge areas where stock farming and hunting provide at best a marginal living.
Upington, the main town in the area, stands on the northern bank of the Orange at the heart of an irrigated corridor of intensive wheat, cotton and, most prominently, grape farms. At the far end of the farming belt, about an hour’s drive west, the Orange picks up speed, frothing and tumbling into a huge granite gorge at Augrabies Falls, the focus of one of the area’s two national parks. The other is the undoubted highlight of this area, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. A vast desert sanctuary rich in game and boasting a magnificent landscape of red dunes and hardy vegetation, it’s well worth the long trek to get there.
Africa’s first official transfrontier park, named KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK after the ancient San name for the Kalahari (it’s pronounced "kha-la-khadi", the kh as in the Scottish "loch"), is the result of the formalization of a long-standing joint management arrangement between South Africa’s Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s neighbouring Gemsbok National Park. The local Mier and San communities have agreed that their land be jointly managed by themselves and South African National Parks, so that the land remains part of the wildlife sanctuary. In keeping with the agreement, tourism opportunities for the local community are being explored, including training people as trackers and rangers. The park is run as a single ecological unit and gate receipts are shared, although the tourist facilities in South Africa and Botswana are still run autonomously. Almost all visitors to the park will, however, encounter only the South African section, where all the established tourist facilities are found.
Kgalagadi covers an area of over 37,000 square kilometres – nearly twice the size of Kruger National Park – and although the South African side is by far the smaller section, it still encompasses a vast 9500 square kilometres. Be prepared to clock up some serious mileage here; the shortest circular game drive is over 100km long, not far short of the distance to Mata-Mata restcamp on the western edge of the reserve. The park is bounded on its western side by the Namibian border, and to the south by the dry Auob River and a strip of land running parallel to this. The national boundary with Botswana follows the dry Nossob river bed, as does one of the few roads in the park. No fences exist along this line, allowing game undisturbed access to the ancient migration routes so necessary for survival in the desert. The main roads follow the river beds, and this is where the game – and their predators – are most likely to be. Water flows very rarely in the two rivers, but frequent boreholes have been drilled to provide water for the game. Larger trees such as camelthorn and witgat (shepherd’s tree) offer a degree of shade and nutrition, and desert-adapted plants, including types of melon and cucumber, are a source of moisture for the animals.
Much of the park is dominated by red sand dunes, which, when seen from the air, lie strung out in long, wave-like bands. From a car, the perspective is different, as you are in the valley of the river bed, but this doesn’t prevent the path from offering one of the finest game-viewing experiences in South Africa – not only for the animals, but for the setting, with its broad landscapes, the crisp light of morning and the huge open skies. The clear viewing and wonderful light are ideal for photography, as shown by the exhibition at the visitor centre at Twee Rivieren Camp.
In a place where ground temperatures in the summer can reach a scorching 70¬∞C, timing your visit is everything. The best period to be in the park is between March and May, when there is still some greenery left from the summer rain and the sun is not so intense. Winter can be very cold at night, while spring, though dry, is a pleasant time before the searing heat of summer.
The game-viewing highlights in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park are, inevitably, the predators, headed by the Kalahari lion and, enjoying rare status alongside the Big Five, gemsbok, the large, lolloping antelope with classically straight, V-shaped horns. You won’t find buffalo, elephant or rhino, but the other animals more than compensate. Of the remaining Big Five, leopards, as elsewhere, are not uncommon, but remain elusive. Kalahari lions commonly have much darker manes than those found in the bushveld, and studies have shown their behavioural and eating patterns to be distinctively well adapted to the semi-desert conditions here.
Beyond the Big Five, there are various species of antelope, hyena, jackal, bat-eared fox, cheetah and some extravagant birdlife, including vultures, eagles, the dramatic bateleur (which takes its name from the French word for an acrobatic tumbler), bustards and ostrich. There’s also a good chance you’ll see family groups of suricate, a relative of the mongoose and squirrel, striking their characteristic pose of standing tall on their hind legs, looking round nervously for signs of danger.
The best time to take your game drives is as early as possible in the morning, when you’re more likely to see animals out in the open. Drives normally take at least four to five hours, so an early start means you can avoid the desert sun at its zenith. The last couple of hours of light in the afternoon are also a good time for game (and for taking photographs), but it’s a lot more relaxing to go out for a little foray from your base than to be en route to a new camp, destined to arrive just as it’s getting dark. The middle of the day, especially during summer, is a necessarily inactive time for both animals and humans, so don’t plan too full a programme.
In late September, Die Eiland resort, across the river from Upington, plays host to the Kalahari Kuierfees (last Thursday to Saturday; kalahari-kuierfees.co.za). A chance for the local Afrikaner community to come together to celebrate their culture, language and food, the event combines flea markets and craft stalls with a triathlon, arts, live Afrikaner music and dance.
Around 265km east of Upington, lying near the border between the Northern Cape and North West Province, the historic settlement of KURUMAN is an important landmark along the main N14 route to and from Gauteng. The settlement grew up around The Eye ("Die Oog" in Afrikaans), a natural spring which, since time immemorial and through drought and flood, has consistently delivered twenty million litres a day of crystal-clear water. The Eye was the focal point for a rather unsettled Tswana clan called the Batlhaping, whose chief, Mothibi, first invited missionaries to live among his people in the early nineteenth century. It was a decision that led to the building of the famous Mission Station by Robert Moffat, and the establishment of Kuruman as the "Gateway to the Interior" of darkest Africa.
These days Kuruman’s centre is pretty scruffy, dominated by cut-price chain stores, faceless supermarkets and litter-strewn minibus-taxi ranks. You can visit The Eye, next to the tourist office, though there isn’t much to look at: a moss-covered slab of rock dribbling water and a lily-covered pond surrounded by a high green fence. More interesting is the Moffat Mission Station some 4km north of town.
Robert and Mary Moffat, newly married envoys of the London Missionary Society, arrived in the Kuruman area in 1820, initially at a place rather charmingly mistranslated by early explorers as Lattakoo about 14km from Kuruman. As a former market gardener, however, Moffat soon saw the advantages of irrigating the flow of The Eye of Kuruman, and began to build his mission on the closest land wide and flat enough to plough.
Moffat didn’t clock up too many converts – by the time he had built his eight-hundred-seater "Cathedral of the Kalahari", in 1838, he had just nine – but the challenge of preaching and establishing a school inspired him not only to learn the local language, which he did by living for a period in a remote Tswana village, but also to attempt the daunting task of translating the Bible into Tswana, which he then published on an imported iron printing press. The mission at Kuruman, meanwhile, carried on until the passing of the Group Areas Act of 1950, which brought about the end of the school and the church as a functioning place of (multiracial) worship.
One of the undoubted highlights of any trip to the Northern Cape is AUGRABIES FALLS NATIONAL PARK, 120km west of Upington. Roaring out of the barren semi-desert, sending great plumes of spray up above the brown horizon, the falls – still known by their Khoikhoi name, Aukoerabis, "the place of great noise" – are the most spectacular moment in the two-thousand-kilometre progress of the Orange River. At peak flow, the huge volume of water plunging through the narrow channel actually compares with the more docile periods at Victoria Falls and Niagara, although Augrabies lacks both the height and the soul-wrenching grandeur of its larger rivals. But in its eerie desert setting under an azure evening sky, the falls provide a moving and absorbing experience. The sides of the canyon are shaped like a smooth parabola, and there are many tales of curious visitors venturing too far to peer at the falls and sliding helplessly into the seething maelstrom below. Despite the odd miraculous survival, several dozen people have died here since the national park was created in 1966.
The falls are viewed from behind a large fence, while a boardwalk allows wheelchair access to the viewpoint. To see more of the gorge, walk the short distance to Arrow Point or drive on the link roads round to Ararat or Echo Corner. The atmosphere is at its best near sunset, when the sun shines straight into the west-facing part of the gorge.
The fairly inhospitable northern section of the park covers 184 square kilometres on both sides of the river. The land is dry and harsh, with sparse plants typical of arid areas, such as kokerboom (quiver tree), camelthorn and Namaqua fig. The landscape is punctuated by various striking rock formations, notably Moon Rock, a huge dome of smooth, flaking granite rising out of the flat plains. If you drive on the (unsurfaced) roads in the park you’ll probably spot some of the resident fauna – including eland, klipspringer and springbok – while you’re likely to see dassie, mongoose and lizards around the falls and the camp.
The best time to visit Augrabies is from March to May, when the temperatures are slightly cooler and the river is at its maximum flow after summer rainfall up in the Lesotho catchment areas. With your own transport, the falls are easily visited as a day-trip from Upington, although there’s plenty of reasonable accommodation both in the park itself and nearby.
Various adventure activities are promoted within the park, though none really matches the adrenaline surge of the falls themselves. The half-day 3-in-1 Gariep trail (closed for maintenance at the time of writing) combines a short canoeing trip in the gorge with a walk and an eleven-kilometre mountain-bike ride back to the restcamp. The Dassie nature trail is a half-day hike out from the main restcamp, while the popular three-day Klipspringer trail (April–Sept only; R175) involves two overnight stops at simple huts; advance booking is essential. Night game drives are also on offer (R130), and there’s a 56-kilometre self-drive tourism route (4WD only) in the park’s northwestern section for viewing plains game.
Perhaps more instantly gratifying is the "Augrabies Rush", a half-day trip on small rafts down 8km of increasingly swift river immediately above the falls, run by Kalahari Outventures (R315 per person with a minimum of four). The same company also runs four-day rafting trails taking you deep into the empty country downriver of the falls (R2950), while another three-day trip surges down the exciting rapids of the Oneepkans Gorge near Pella (R2850).
As an inevitable focus of trips to Kgalagadi and Augrabies, as well as those to and from Namaqualand and Namibia, UPINGTON, just over 400km west of Kimberley, is a good place to stop for supplies, organize a park tour or onward accommodation, or simply draw breath. Situated on the banks of the Orange River, central Upington is compact and easy to get around, with most of the activity on the three main streets running parallel to the riverbank. It can be a mellow spot, with plenty of greenery softening the arid landscape that surrounds it – a result of the irrigation that allows Upington to be surrounded by vineyards. However, the savage summer temperatures mean you probably won’t want to linger.
Upington’s obvious highlight is the Orange River, but unless you’re staying at one of the riverside guesthouses, it tends to be hidden from view. The terrace behind the Irish Pub is a good place to admire the river and its swans. Better still, take a cruise with Sakkie se Arkie on its strange two-tier barge; it’s based on the riverbank at the east end of Park Street.